Protective Boots: Researchers Call for Standards, Testing

Many horses sport leg protection while working or during turnout. Some horse owners also use "support" boots, which are designed to lessen the strain on their horses' lower-limb tendons and ligaments. But David Marlin, BSc (Hons.), PhD, says some boots might be doing little to protect your horse's legs and could even be causing them harm.

Marlin, an equine research consultant from England, was a co-presenter at a March 31 seminar organized by Equilibrium Products Ltd., a British maker of leg boots and other equine accoutrements. Equilibrium had sponsored research into the protective abilities of various makers' leg boots. According to a company press release, "The variations in the results were so extreme that they caused concern for the welfare of the horse." About 50 veterinarians, riders, and officials from various British equestrian organizations attended the seminar held to discuss these results, according to Marlin.

(He noted that such research findings might normally be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal for possible publication. Marlin said that while he hasn't ruled this out, the goal of the seminar was to encourage industry collaboration, and "a peer-reviewed paper would involve naming products, and this might be counterproductive.")

Cause for concern?

In tests designed to replicate the blows caused by hitting a fence, overreaching, or encountering a sharp object, Marlin said many boots and bandages provided inadequate protection at best or increased the damage at worst.­

"Some materials offer protection against concussion, but are ineffective against penetration, and other materials have the opposite problem in that they protect against penetration, but do not reduce concussion damage," Marlin said. "It's almost impossible to predict which boots will do what until you either test them and/or take a knife and open them up."

Marlin said no external factor has emerged as a reliable predictor of good protection. "We have taken boots that look good and then been surprised at how poorly they have performed in tests," he said.


Heat testing horse leg boots

Example of a test researchers used to determine release of heat. On left, thermographic images of a cold boot applied to a hot leg show that heat is kept in. On right, a hot boot applied to a cool leg releases heat.

Then there's the matter of physics. A boot or wrap adds weight to the lower leg, thereby requiring more energy to move and stop that leg. Add enough weight and you can alter the horse's stride, increase the required athletic output, or both. A very stiff boot can also alter the stride or have other deleterious effects. And some boots can absorb up to their own weight in sweat and water.

And then there's the issue of temperature. "Some materials and designs retain heat inside the boot, making the legs underneath and the tendons very warm," Marlin said, noting that high temperatures can lead to tendon inflammation or even cell death.

Testing and standards

Marlin and his colleagues' objective is to develop a standardized testing and rating system to identify boots as offering "light," "medium," or "heavy" protection against concussion and penetration. Manufacturers would also have to provide boot weights and heat-insulation ratings.

Until such a system comes to pass, Marlin said a horse owner's best bet is to choose a boot made by a manufacturer that has conducted its own protection tests.

About the Author

Jennifer O. Bryant

Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site,

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